PHO704: Gregory Halpern

I have been greatly enjoying the work of the American photographer Gregory Halpern. His practice strikes a lot of chords with me, particularly in terms of my current practice and research interests.

Three main things draw me to Halpern.

The first is Halpern’s understanding of the uncertain, slippery nature of documentary photography and his gradual move away from it and into an approach with a greater awareness of fantasy and fiction.

‘Over the years I’ve become less interested in documentary and more interested in the space between fiction and non-fiction, which sometimes feels like Surrealism to me. It became most obvious when I was working on ZZYZX, which starts with contemporary Los Angeles but sort of builds a semi-fictional world out of the city. That interest has continued, and the more I’ve thought about photography’s slippery relationship to “truth,” the more fascinated I’ve become in how photographic precision and Surrealism are not contradictory. Andre Breton argued that Surrealism’s goal was to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality”’ (Smyth 2020).

Halpern talks of building a ‘a semi-fictional world’ out of contemporary Los Angeles in his book ZZYZX (Halpern 2016). This is close to what I am now trying to do in my project on the city of Oxford, Silent City. I also like Halpern’s allusion here to Surrealism (and elsewhere to Magical Realism). The surreal is often formed by an unexpected conjunction of opposites, or by the unexpected presence of that which does not belong or by a sense of the inexplicable because agency and explanation are withheld. One thinks of Man Ray’s photograph Self Portrait with Gun (1932) or of Dali’s painting The Persistence of Memory (1931), for example. This is the territory of the uncanny, the weird and the eerie which forms part of my research. See Figs 1-4.

Figs 1-4: Gregory Halpern 2016-2020. Social documentary becomes steadily more descriptive of a ‘semi-fictional world’ that allows the ‘chaos and contradictions’ of the world to speak for themselves (Smyth 2020). Click on an image for a larger, lightbox view.

The second reason I am drawn to Halpern’s practice is his willingness to rest in uncertainty and instead allow the ‘chaos and contradictions’ of the world to speak for themselves. Halpern does not try to pretend that in apparently documentary images he is ever offering more than a subjective view.

‘What’s interesting to me about the world is its chaos and contradictions, the way opposites can be so beautiful in relation to each other. I like how you can be attracted and repelled by something at the same moment. I want my images to create cognitive dissonance. If I feel that a sensation caused by an image is singular in nature—awe, beauty, dread, for example—I wind up finding the image to be manipulative, and unfaithful to the contradictory natures of reality. I think we underestimate our viewers’ and ability to read the work.

‘For me, what makes photography such an exciting and troubling artform in general is the deception and tension hard-wired into it, the difficulty of defining its slippery relationship to truth. A photograph has potential to be much more objectively truthful or factual than, say, a painting, but painting is more honest about its intentions and possibilities’ (Bourgeois-Vignon 2018).

If photography is ‘never entirely fiction or non-fiction’, however, then what does a photograph really show? I would suggest that what it always shows are traces, some vivid and some faint, but traces of what? Halpern suggests that the world (and the image) are too complex to be reducible to a set of perfectly indexical facts and that what instead all images confront us with is ‘a rightfully impenetrable thing’. It is up to the viewer of make sense the image and any attempt by the artist to impose a meaning is false and unwelcome.

‘Photographers have a way of organizing/simplifying the chaos that is the world around us. And it is said that photography is uniquely suited to “reflect” the world around us, but what if our surroundings are complex to the point of being visually and verbally indescribable? That conundrum is the reality I want to reflect, with the creation of a rightfully impenetrable thing’ (Magnum Photos 2020).

The third reason I am drawn to Halpern’s practice is his interest in the photobook as his primary mode of expression.

‘I love the space between images. The things that happen when you turn the page, when you are looking at a new image with the ghost of the previous image lingering in your mind… I love the feel of a being swept up, as if by a stream, by a book of photographs. I love the introduction to Rinko Kawauchi’s book Illuminance, in which David Chandler writes this beautiful and simple meditation on books in general: “There is something primal in the act of opening a book for the first time. That moment of expectation, that prospect of discovery, however dulled or wearied, is still there each time we take a new book in our hands. At our most innocent and instinctive, we are prepared to be changed in some way by what we are about to see”’ (Bourgeois-Vignon 2018).

The lesson here with any photobook is painstaking care in curation and sequencing so that the images flow one into another but, crucially, without losing sight of the overall intent of the whole work. As Halpern says of ZZYZX, his book on Los Angeles, ‘I wanted the pictures to evoke something simultaneously contemporary and ancient, a response to the Los Angeles of the moment, but also something not so literal. I wanted the space to also be somewhat mythical, the timeline somewhat Biblical’ (Bourgeois-Vignon 2018).

In my own practice I am not seeking to be Biblical, and I am certainly not trying to portray something on the epic scale of Los Angeles, but increasingly Halpern’s approach is the intent behind my current research project. That, and the intent David Company found in Rut Blees Luxemburg’s night photography practice:

London a Modern Project … used the visual estrangement of night photography to depict anonymous architecture. Motorway flyovers, tower blocks, car parks and garages were transformed into surfaces revealing social structures and urban behaviour’ (Company 2012: 108).

References

BOURGEOIS-VIGNON, Anne. 2018. ‘Power and the Camera: Gregory Halpern Talks Intuition, Reflection and Representation’. Magnum Photos [online]. Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/theory-and-practice/gregory-halpern-profile-intuition-representation/ [accessed 18 Oct 2020].

CAMPANY, David. 2012. Art and Photography. Abridged. London: Phaidon.

HALPERN, Gregory. 2018. Confederate Moons. Oakland, CA: TBW Books.

HALPERN, Gregory and Clément CHÉROUX. 2020. Le the Sun Beheaded Be. New York: Aperture Foundation.

HALPERN, Gregory. 2016. ZZYZX. London: MACK.

MAGNUM PHOTOS. 2020. ‘Gregory Halpern’. Magnum Photos [online]. Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/photographer/gregory-halpern/ [accessed 18 Oct 2020].

SMYTH, Diane. 2020. ‘Gregory Halpern: Let the Sun Beheaded Be’. Magnum Photos [online]. Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/theory-and-practice/let-the-sun-beheaded-be/ [accessed 18 Oct 2020].

Figures

Figure 1: Gregory HALPERN. 2016. ‘Wicker chairs overlooking downtown LA’. From: Gregory Halpern. 2016. ZZYZX. London: MACK.

Figure 2: Gregory HALPERN. 2016. ‘Blue Tarp Smiley Face’. From Gregory Halpern. 2016. ZZYZX. London: MACK.

Figure: Gregory HALPERN. 2020. ‘Guadeloupe’. From: Gregory Halpern and Clément Chéroux. 2020. Let the Sun Beheaded Be. New York: Aperture Foundation.

Figure 4: Gregory HALPERN. 2018. [Untitled]. From: Gregory Halpern. 2018. Confederate Moons. Oakland, CA: TBW Books.

PHO704: Finding One’s Voice

The exhibition Young Rembrandt at the Ashmolean Museum (Ashmolean 2020) has proved a fascinating insight into the process by which an artist finds their voice.

It begins with Rembrandt as a teenager and ends with his first successes in his twenties. Rembrandt was preternaturally gifted as an artist but what becomes clear is that the interests and motifs that would later come to define the ‘Rembrandt look’ are still evident, if in embryo, in his earliest rough sketches and student works. He always had his voice. What he had to do was find it.

There is the interest in and sympathy for the elderly and infirm. There is the fascination with texture, whether that of aged skin or of a richly embroidered cloak. Exotic clothes, turbans and jewellery were always an interest, as often were dogs. There is an intense focus even in student works on the emotional dynamics of the scene, and there is the increasingly masterful use of light and shadow to define the points of interest and demarcate the frame, what would later become known as ‘Rembrandt lighting’. These all appear even if a work is a rather clumsy early attempt or is in a style (perhaps a student exercise) one would not normally associate with Rembrandt. See Figs. 1-3 for some examples.

This makes clear that finding one’s voice as an artist or photographer is a process, and that it might pay to analyse one’s work (or photographic archive) over the years to see where one’s interests really lie and what emotions, motifs and ideas emerge in one’s work more frequently than others. It is also a process that requires hard work. Even someone as gifted as Rembrandt took 10-15 years to master his craft and fully find his voice.

There is also a good point to be made here about art and commerce. Rembrandt was a ‘professional’ in modern terms. He was someone who depended on his art for a living and who understood not only painting but the business of painting. He wasted nothing. Ideas were kept as sketches or examples of tropes that could be deployed later as details in larger oil paintings. He collaborated with others, such as professional print-makers, art-dealers, wealthy patrons like Constantijn Huygens and fellow artists like Jan Lievens. He sought out props such as shields and swords, some of which recur in his works. He would take an idea and develop from it not only a painting but sketches and the basis for an etching, then alter his ideas again to pull out details for smaller, separate etchings. Blank areas of larger copper etching plates were cut out and reused for small-scale studies.

When one looks at Rembrandt’s working methods, and of course at the later, mature portraits of merchants and grandees, all of which were commissioned, then any distinction between art and commerce simply vanishes. It was all the same mindstream.

References

ASHMOLEAN MUSEUM. 2020. ‘Young Rembrandt’ [exhibition]. Oxford: Ashmolean Museum. Exhibition from 24 February – 1 November 2020: Young Rembrandt.

Figures

Figure 1. Rembrandt Harmenszoon VAN RIJN. 1628. The Artist’s Mother, Head and Bust. Ashmolean Museum.

Figure 2. Rembrandt Harmenszoon VAN RIJN. 1626. The Baptism of the Eunuch. Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht.

Figure 3. Rembrandt Harmenszoon VAN RIJN. 1632. Bearded Old Man. Fogg Museum, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA.

PHO704 Week 3: The Power of the Personal Project

On the strength of the suggestions in Week 3, I have started a modest personal project as a side-work to my FMP. I think this will help me work out some of the ideas in the coursework, as well as help to recapture some of the joie de vivre I felt in photography before I started this course.

My side project is called Entropias (but it is not a replacement for my main research project, Silent City). It is about the moments and the places where everything comes together, then falls apart. In other words it is about entropy which is also the cycle or mandala of life and the changing of the seasons. Something is born, arises, peaks, decays and eventually vanishes into the elements of something new, another turn of the wheel. Entropy can be expressed as energy but we probably understand it as time. Change through time is the only way we can really experience what is otherwise a law of physics.

Here are a few images.

To take this further, I have compared my ideas about Entropias with the excellent suggestions offered by Grant Scott in ‘The Power of the Personal Project’ (Scott 2015), and in particular with his ten steps for creating a successful personal project whether intellectual or emotional (Scott distinguishes between the two):

How to Create a Successful Personal Project

  1. Find your story. Make sure that it is personal to you, that you have a unique voice to tell the story.

I have the story, of birth, change and decay. I can only tell it in my voice. For consistency I am shooting in colour and using a specific cinematic colour palette in post.

  1. 2. Do not be overly ambitious. Be realistic about what you can achieve on the basis of the time and financial commitment you are going to be able to devote to creating the project.

The project is something I can drop in and out of when I have a spare afternoon or come across a telling image (I will use an iPhone for those).

  1. Do your research. Find out if other photographers have tackled the subject you are planning to photograph. Look at how they did it, what the outcomes were, and how it was received. Then ensure that you do not repeat the same approach.

Yes, I will need to do some research for sure.

  1. Build your online community as you are working on the project and keep them informed of its progress with images and information about how you are creating the project and the process you are going through.

When I have enough decent images, I will start posting into an album on Flickr and likely on my portfolio website. I am dropping one or two images into Instagram, too.

  1. Be patient. A worthwhile personal project is not going to come together in a few days or weeks.

This project will likely be done when I realize that it is done. I am setting no deadlines.

  1. Consider using audio and moving images to add both context and additional narrative to your storytelling.

This is very tempting for my FMP but probably too ambitious for a small personal project. Music sparks ideas and associations, however, so this is not to be overlooked.

  1. Research appropriate self-publishing options for your project and engage with the photographers who are already involved with the photo book self-publishing community.

The most likely destination is an accordion-fold booklet or a Blurb-style publication, partly to keep down costs. If I make enough good images in one place (Rousham House and Gardens, for example, which is a very good venue for changing seasons) I could expand my options by approaching them with ideas for something more ambitious.

  1. Try and attend talks and workshops being given by fellow photographers working on personal projects.

Yes, absolutely, but none attended yet on this specific topic.

  1. Consider working with a journalist or writer at some point during the process of creating your project. Inevitably you will require text to accompany your images, or to include in your book, or on your website to provide context and information. This text needs to be as professional as your images, so get a professional to create it.

Not keen on this one. My project is not documentary and involving a writer would make it bigger than I currently want. What matters is to start with something I want to do and believe I can. We’ll see.

  1. Stay true to your vision but be open to your project evolving into unexpected areas. The excitement always lies in the choppy waters.

Yes! I might find telling images not from changing seasons in nature, for example, but from gritty events in a city centre or from quiet domestic moments at home. The important thing is to stay open to new ideas and rich moments, not close down.

(Adapted from Scott, 2015: 108-9)

References

Scott, G. (2015) ‘The Power of the Personal Project’. In Scott GRANT (ed). Professional photography: the new global landscape explained. New York: Focal Press, pp. 82–109. Available at: https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/falmouth-ebooks/reader.action?docID=1734212&amp [accessed 7 Oct 2020).

Figures

Figures 1-8. Mark CREAN. 2020. Entropias. Collection of the author.

PHO704: The Weird and the Eerie

Mark Fisher’s book The Weird and the Eerie (Fisher 2016) is likely to become one of the key texts for my research project. I wish I had come across it before.

Fisher takes Freud’s ideas about the uncanny or unheimlich (Freud et al. 2003) and adapts and extends them much more widely into art, literature and the cinema than did Freud. This is not surprising. Freud was writing a short essay as a psychoanalyst and in keeping with that was content to rest his ideas on a hypothesis: that the uncanny derives its power from the anxiety of the castration complex and ultimately from a hidden fear of death. As Fisher demonstrates, however, this is only a small part of the whole story of these strange states of mind and, besides, resting them on a hypothesis is disappointing and incomplete.

Fisher’s basic premise is that the duality of all existence is an insoluble fact of the human condition: the duality between subject and object, inside and outside, known and unknown, part and whole, ‘reality’ as we understand it and dreams and fantasies. Uncanny, weird and eerie are states of mind and feelings that arise when the edges of these worlds rub against one another:

‘Freud’s unheimlich is about the strange within the familiar … Psychoanalysis itself is an umheimlich genre; it is haunted by an outside which it circles around but can never fully acknowledge or affirm. …The weird and the eerie make the opposite move: they allow us to see the inside from the perspective of the outside’ (Fisher 2016: 10).

The weird is the intrusion from outside our field of view of something which does not belong there. The outside breaks through into the inside, sometimes forcibly so:

‘The weird is that which does not belong. The weird brings to the familiar something which ordinarily lies beyond it, and which cannot be reconciled with the “homely” (even as its negation). The form that is most appropriate to the weird is montage – the conjoining of two or more things which do not belong together. Hence the predilection within surrealism for the weird …’ (Fisher 2016: 10-11).

‘ … the weird is a particular kind of perturbation. It involves a sensation of wrongness: a weird entity or object is so strange that it makes us feel that it should not exist, or at least it should not exist here. Yet if the entity or object is here, then the categories which we have up until now used to make sense of the world cannot be valid. The weird is not wrong, after all: it is our conceptions that must be inadequate’ (Fisher 2016: 15).

The eerie, in contrast, is about a failure or an incompleteness of presence or of absence, of outside or of inside.

‘As we have seen, the weird is constituted by a presence – the presence of that which does not belong. … The eerie, by contrast, is constituted by a failure of absence or by a failure of presence. The sensation of the eerie occurs either when there is something present where there should be nothing, or there is nothing present when there should be something’ (Fisher 2016: 61).

As Fisher goes on to explain, however, the most intriguing aspect of the eerie concerns agency: what is going on, and what or who is doing it? The point is that, as with the presumed motives of the builders of pre-historic ruins, we do not know and probably we will never know. All we are left with are traces of something unexplained apparently exerting an influence we do not fully understand. We are left with traces of the past in the present moment, but spookily this can be looked at from another angle, namely that what we think of as the present is only the traces of the past. There is no ‘real’, only traces of something that vanishes as soon as you try to grasp it. Reality can be experienced, but never contained.

‘Behind all of the manifestations of the eerie, the central enigma at is core is the problem of agency. In the case of the failure of absence, the question concerns the existence of agency as such. Is there a deliberate agent there at all? Are we being watched by an agent that has not yet revealed itself? In the case of the failure of presence, the question concerns the particular nature of the agent at work. … what we have to reckon with are the traces of a departed agent whose purposes are unknown’ (Fisher 2016: 63-4).

I think these ideas will have a strong and rich impact on my practice. Fisher looks at the work of great cinema directors like Kubrick, Lynch and Tarkovsky and in fact I have just watched Tarkovsky’s Solaris (Tarkovsky 1972) and Stalker (Tarkovsky 1979). Both are fascinating in their use of framing and angles, of time looping around itself, and of a soundscape that is equally as important as the visual landscape. In Stalker, in particular, so many scenes are framed through doors, windows, archways or holes, or along corridors or other thresholds.

These thresholds are all portals, the places where we sense another world or another reality. They are the edges where inner and outer meet, and so they are where all the tension is. All great images need tension and the tension derives from a photographer’s understanding of the symbolic power of these elements.

I have already incorporated some of these ideas into my practice without realizing it, in particular doors and curtains. But now that I have a good idea from Fisher’s research of what is really going on, I can return and concentrate my intent in a fresh way. I can also use these ideas to frame a narrative as we move between the inner and outer of different words. Exciting! I am looking forward to my next few photowalks.

References

FISHER, Mark. 2016. The Weird and the Eerie. London: Repeater.

FREUD, Sigmund, David MCLINTOCK and Hugh HAUGHTON. 2003. The Uncanny. New York : Penguin.

TARKOVSKY, Andrei. 1972 Solaris. [Film].

TARKOVSKY, Andrei. 1979. Stalker. [Film].

PHO704 Week 2: Other Careers in Photography

Choices

This has been an interesting week because I had not realized that there are so many different career paths within the overall field of photography.

This is very freeing in a way because it means that one doesn’t have to feel shoehorned into a particular box. Instead we are free to find something that truly satisfies our talents. In a way I have already done this with an earlier career. Upon graduating, I could have been a writer or a journalist but instead I settled on book publishing. It seemed a good blend of art and commerce with a great deal of variety and the chance to meet lots of interesting people. And so it proved.

In terms of photography, however, one element links all paths: visual culture and visual language. It is this one must pay close attention to. We live in a visual culture and proficiency in its language applies to many different industries today, whether fashion, architecture or industrial design. The same is true for what photographers today are also expected to bring to the table: adaptability, creative thinking, collaborative experience, and business and presentation skills.

As Scott Grant has explained in The United Nations of Photography:

‘I believe that the study of photography should not be solely focused on the practice of being a photographer or working within the creative arts. Instead it should be seen as a gateway subject to career paths outside of the expected and established. Just as the humanities are to Law.

In a time when flexibility, problem solving, creativity and visual communication are becoming increasingly valuable employment requirements I suggest that photography may well be one of the most important subjects to study in the 21st Century’ (Grant 2020).

Business Basics

The suggestions given in the coursework this week are an extremely useful cheat sheet. I know this from my own experience, having helped to found one publishing company and helped to grow another one from its modest beginnings. It is hard work and you have to be completely adaptable and willing to turn your hand to whatever is required. It is also vital to become financially literate because otherwise you won’t know whether a job is actually worth doing. Running a business is not about doing something just because ‘It sounded like a good idea’. The fastest way for things to end in tears is to lose control of the finances and watch your ‘cash burn’ spiral until nothing is left of the start-up funding – or your savings.

Professionalism

What it means to be a ‘professional’ photographer is much-debated question, but perhaps Scott Grant sums it up:

‘All professionals need to have the ability to create consistently strong images … as well as the ability to create a narrative within a series. … This is what sets them apart from a general member of the public with a camera’ (Pfab 2020).

However, this is only a part of the story. Photographic and narrative skills go hand in hand with business skills, experience and the wider range of other skills a professional photographer must master such as presentation and marketing. None of this can be acquired overnight. Becoming professional – in anything – is as process and it can take a long time. One must learn how things work in practice and how business is typically conducted. There is the right way to deliver what a client requires, for example, as Tom Seymour recently showed in his Falmouth presentation Creating a Press Campaign and Getting Published (Seymour 2020). Failing to give a client the information they need on which to base a decision is what amateurs do. In my experience, the only real way to acquire this knowledge is by learning from those who are already professionals. Nothing beats experience and training at work.

As a professional press photographer has pointed out, the difference between a professional and an amateur is that a professional can and will complete the client’s exact brief, whereas an amateur usually will not be able to because they lack the skills, equipment and experience (Terakopian 2020).

Vision

What has often been repeated by different voices both this week and last week is the importance of personal vision: ‘It is absolutely vital to find your own voice and signature visual language’ (Pfab 2020). Emma Bowkett emphasized this in her Falmouth presentation this week FT Weekend Magazine (Bowkett 2020), as did both Lydia Pang in her recent podcast On Commissioning (Pang 2020) and recent graduates on It’s Nice That (It’s Nice That 2017).

Personal vision comes down to offering a point of view on the world that no one else could have photographed, which in turn means authenticity and integrity. This is the only way to attract attention and stand out among the tide of images that floods across the desk of editors every day. Faking it – adopting someone else’s style – does not work. One’s work must be original. Both Bowkett and Pang are successful commissioning editors, and they should know.

How far am I along this path? Perhaps a little further than I was when I began this degree course. One of my goals in this course is to get as far along the path of finding an authentic voice as I can.

References

BOWKETT, Emma. 2020. ‘FT Weekend Magazine’. Falmouth Flexible Photography Hub [online]. Available at: https://recordings.reu1.blindsidenetworks.com/falmouth/b5139beb38edd9a5a5b4d655de1c8ea7c2e5e6f9-1601488194811/capture/ [accessed 30 Sep 2020].

IT’S NICE THAT. 2017. ‘How to Go Freelance: Need-to-Know Advice from Creatives Who Made It’. It’s Nice That [online]. Available at: http://www.itsnicethat.com/features/the-graduates-2017-advice-how-to-go-freelance-170517 [accessed 30 Sep 2020].

PANG, Lydia. 2020. ‘On Commissioning’. The Messy Truth [online]. Available at: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/lydia-pang-on-commissioning/id1459128692?i=1000442904984 [accessed 29 Sep 2020].

PFAB, Anna-Maria. 2020. ‘What Is the DNA of the Twenty First Century Professional Photographer?’. Falmouth University [online]. Available at: https://flex.falmouth.ac.uk/courses/671/pages/week-2-presentation-dna-of-a-21st-century-photographer?module_item_id=43366 [accessed 30 Sep 2020].

SCOTT, Grant. 2020. ‘Is It Moral to Teach Photography?’ United Nations of Photography [online]. Available at: https://unitednationsofphotography.com/2020/07/07/is-it-moral-to-teach-photography/ [accessed 30 Sep 2020].

SEYMOUR, Tom. 2020. ‘Creating a Press Campaign and Getting Published’. Falmouth Flexible Photography Hub [online]. Available at: https://recordings.reu1.blindsidenetworks.com/falmouth/44e40a05380d0df14d38c59bed78489db86b1e49-1600865116374/capture/ [accessed 29 Sep 2020].

TERAKOPIAN, Edmond. 2020. ‘Shooting an International Campaign’. The Photography Show & The Video Show Virtual Festival [online]. Available at: https://photographyshow.vfairs.com/en/hall#topics-tab [accessed 29 Sep 2020].

PHO704 Week 1: On Turning Professional

I have learned a lot from this week’s coursework. These are the points I have picked up:

1. It is very important to be authentic, which means one has to know oneself and establish a style or form of practice. It is not possible to make someone else’s photographs. Commissioning editors look out for authenticity and an original voice among a sea of all too similar ideas.

‘What I am looking for will carry with it the sense that the work is powered by the authentic concerns of the photographer, that it is in some way heartfelt and has an integrity to its approach and treatment of its subject. For me, the presence of that authentic voice is what lifts a body of work above the everyday’ (Read 2016: 218).

2. Thorough and ongoing research is vital. It is not possible to tell a story without research, and not is it possible to understand and let alone fulfil a client brief without research. Storytelling matters. All brands have a story. Most good conversations are about a story. Not everything is a story, but it is important to understand narrative and its dynamics. A good photographer today needs a working knowledge of journalistic practice.

‘The photographer needs to understand and implement the fundamental requirements of traditional storytelling based upon facts, but they need to go further than the journalist because they also need to this an understanding of visual language and visual narratives. … My point is not to underplay the importance of journalism to the journalist, but to understand that the photographer needs to take the fundamentals of good journalism and apply them to photography to ensure the images created transcend their ethereal surface nature and provide context and narrative information’ (Scott 2020).

3. Collaboration is important and is becoming more so. The days of the stand-alone auteur are long gone. Collaboration matters because increasingly clients are looking for a full cross-media submission. They want good images, but they also want good video, graphic design, web skills and communication skills. Only a team-based approach can provide this. Besides, it often takes feedback from others to give one a sense of where one is going and whether one’s ideas stand up.

In addition, collaboration matters because it is a gateway to your audience having a fuller understanding of the work. It is no longer smart, if ever it was, to regard one’s audience as merely passive consumers. Audiences today want participation and empowerment. That means that ‘art’ today is increasingly defined as a collaboration between artist and audience. This requires a team-based approach because works are better understood when informed by the expertise of others. A coral reef makes for a pretty picture, but a picture of a coral reef accompanied by scientific data, environmental research and an understanding of wildlife and diversity make for a more interesting story about our world and climate change.

‘Importantly, working within the collaborative structure had the advantage of helping to constitute a group identity, which in turn led to the development of a mission statement in which a series of ethical and political objectives could be clearly defined. … The process of designing for visual information advocacy—a term that sums up how non governmental organisations employ imagery in order to garner public support—involves situating the photograph within a multimodal context. … The inclusion of additional modes has the function of anchoring meaning into the photograph by providing the audience with an awareness of the environmental or social problems relevant to a given location’ (Scott 2016: 232).

4. Multimedia is important, which means at least a working knowledge of stills, video, web and graphics. Clients are looking for flexibility and adaptability. As Lydia Pang says in her podcast On Commissioning, ‘ You’re a creative: what’s your output?’ – not where are your photographs, or video, or graphics (Pang 2020). The datastream is not compartmentalized.

5. One needs a good grasp of the nuts and bolts of the business. As Tom Seymour explains in his Falmouth video presentation, it’s all about the story, the angle, the edit, the source, the pitch, the press release (Seymour 2020). Each is a different stage, and each requires careful attention to get it right because otherwise one is not giving commissioning editors or potential clients the information they need on which to base a decision.

6. Have a plan and keep it tight. One needs to see oneself as a clearly defined brand and ensure that this flows through all one’s communications in a consistent way. That means self-knowledge: what one does, how one does it, who the audience are. Marketing is absolutely crucial. One has to learn how to market one’s brand. The nuts and bolts were set out in a recent video presentation by Charlie Giles of the Association of Photographers (Giles 2020).

Put like this, establishing oneself, marketing what one offers and delivering what the client wants sound an almost impossible Everest. In practice, however, I think it can be broken down into smaller and far less forbidding steps. An example would be Instagram. It is a platform that can be approached purely as a business tool. There are many tutorials and how-to documents out there now about the steps required to make Instagram work as a business tool rather than as a pleasure platform. This is a well-trodden path (see Timehin 2020).  Perhaps a similar approach – one subject at a time, broken down into steps – will make all the other elements easier to approach too.

Finally, there is no substitute for hard work and thinking on one’s feet. In creating and shooting a worldwide campaign for Panasonic cameras, Edmond Terakopian made nearly 15,000 images in all kinds of settings and several different countries in less than two months. He curated this down to less than 20 final images for the client. It must have been very demanding work – but he got the job (Terakopian 2020). I hope he was well rewarded!

References

GILES, Charlie. 2020. ‘The Fundamentals of Marketing Yourself as a Photographer’. The Photography Show & The Video Show Virtual Festival [online]. Available at: https://photographyshow.vfairs.com/en/hall#topics-tab [accessed 29 Sep 2020].

PANG, Lydia. 2020. ‘On Commissioning’. The Messy Truth [online]. Available at: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/lydia-pang-on-commissioning/id1459128692?i=1000442904984 [accessed 21 Sep 2020)

READ, Shirley. 2016. ‘Essay: “Shirley Read: Finding and Knowing – Thinking about Ideas”’. In Shirley READ (ed.). Photographers and Research. Routledge, 218–22. Available at: https://www-taylorfrancis-com.ezproxy.falmouth.ac.uk/books/e/9781315730462 [accessed 21 Sep 2020].

SCOTT, Conohar. 2106. ‘Essay: “Conohar Scott: Collaborative Working”’. In Shirley READ (ed.). Photographers and Research. Routledge, 230–4. Available at: https://www-taylorfrancis-com.ezproxy.falmouth.ac.uk/books/e/9781315730462 [accessed 21 Sep 2020].

SCOTT, Grant. 2020. ‘Every Photographer Is a Journalist but Not Every Journalist Is a Photographer!’. United Nations of Photography [online]. Available at: https://unitednationsofphotography.com/2020/07/18/every-photographer-is-a-journalist-but-not-every-journalist-is-a-photographer/ [accessed 29 Sep 2020].

SEYMOUR, Tom. 2020. ‘Creating a Press Campaign and Getting Published’. Falmouth Flexible Photography Hub [online]. Available at: https://recordings.reu1.blindsidenetworks.com/falmouth/44e40a05380d0df14d38c59bed78489db86b1e49-1600865116374/capture/ [accessed 29 Sep 2020].

TERAKOPIAN, Edmond. 2020. ‘Shooting an International Campaign’. The Photography Show & The Video Show Virtual Festival [online]. Available at: https://photographyshow.vfairs.com/en/hall#topics-tab [accessed 29 Sep 2020].

TIMEHIN, Ron. 2020. ‘Basics of Business on Instagram’. The Photography Show & The Video Show Virtual Festival [online]. Available at: https://photographyshow.vfairs.com/en/hall#topics-tab [accessed 29 Sep 2020].

PHO704 Week 1: Research

A new module kicks off, and the topic in this first week is all about research.

My to-do list at present is rather scrappy and forbiddingly long, but this is what I think I need to concentrate on:

I am continuing with my established research project, Silent City, a walk through the city of Oxford after dark. I am planning to continue this practice in black and white rather than in colour.

1. I need to further my understanding and knowledge of black and white photography.

2. Having looked at some of the classics and the greats in previous modules, I need to look more at contemporary photographers and the modern scene. This means getting to know websites such as American Suburb X (American Suburb X 2020), LensCulture (LensCulture 2020), the photographic sections on Vice (Vice 2020), Aperture (Aperture 2020), the British Journal of Photography online (British Journal of Photography 2020), younger and contemporary practitioners on Magnum (Maghum 2020) and so forth. I have taken out subscriptions to the British Journal of Photography online and to Black+White magazine (Black+White Photography 2020) online. I will also need to widen my list of those I am following on Instagram.

3. I need to broaden my reading and think more laterally. I would like to read fewer works of academic criticism and more of literature around the subject. So, I need to read literature on cities, both factual and fiction, whether novels like Calvino’s Invisible Cities (Calvino 1997) or the Encyclopedia of Oxford (Hibbert and Hibbert 1988) or Dickens on Night Walks (Dickens 2010).

4. Psychogeography: I read Merlin Coverley’s summary work in a previous module (Coverley 2010), but I need to look more closely into the subject. Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital is one book to consult (Sinclair 2003). This is important because psychogeography is a gateway into understanding a city’s nuances, details and atmosphere, the things that make it this particular place rather than any city anywhere.

5. I would like to become much more professional in my overall approach. This means getting to grips with brand strategy and marketing, understanding how to interface with clients, understanding how to write the right kind of pitches and briefs, and instilling the organization and discipline to fulfil them. I am hoping much of the coursework this term will help with that, but in addition there are excellent tutorials on LinkedIn Learning (free for Falmouth Students) which I already use for Adobe software products (LinkedIn Learning 2020).

6. As for the actual photographic work, I need to fill in areas of Oxford I have not yet photographed. I need to visit some areas I photographed in previous modules but not with the understanding and approach I have now. I need to bring in more variations in the quality of light, which means more shoots at dusk or dawn rather than at night. I need to look more at details, which means at signs, symbols and signifiers (enter the world of Barthes). And I need to consider a story or theme, if there is one. The river and canals threading through Oxford is one possibility, and a poetic one too. This could provide a backbone to my work.

7. My final intent is still centred around producing a book of photographs. This means more study of photography books, their design, curation and production, and therefore more attention to companies like Self Publish, Be Happy (Self Publish, Be Happy 2020).

References

AMERICAN SUBURB X. 2020. ‘AMERICAN SUBURB X – Since 2008, an Epicenter for Photography, Art and Culture’. AMERICAN SUBURB X [online]. Available at: https://americansuburbx.com/ [accessed 29 Sep 2020].

APERTURE. 2020. ‘Aperture’. Aperture [online]. Available at: https://aperture.org/ [accessed 29 Sep 2020].

BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY. 2020. ‘Black+White Photography – Cool, Creative and Contemporary’. Black+White Photography [online]. Available at: https://www.blackandwhitephotographymag.co.uk/ [accessed 29 Sep 2020].

BRITISH JOURNAL OF PHOTOGRAPHY. 2020. ‘British Journal of Photography – The Latest Photography News and Features, since 1854.’ British Journal of Photography [online]. Available at: https://www.bjp-online.com/ [accessed 29 Sep 2020].

CALVINO, Italo. 1997. Invisible Cities. London: Vintage.

COVERLEY, Merlin. 2010. Psychogeography. Harpenden: Pocket Essentials.

DICKENS, Charles. 2010. Night Walks. London: Penguin.

HIBBERT, Christopher and Edward HIBBERT. 1988. The Encyclopaedia of Oxford. London: Macmillan.

LENSCULTURE. 2020. ‘LensCulture – Contemporary Photography’. LensCulture [online]. Available at: https://www.lensculture.com/ [accessed 29 Sep 2020].

LINKEDIN LEARNING. 2020. ‘LinkedIn Learning: Online Courses for Creative, Technology, Business Skills’. LinkedIn Learning [online]. Available at: https://www.linkedin.com/learning [accessed 29 Sep 2020].

MAGNUM PHOTOS. 2020. ‘Magnum Photos – A Photographic Cooperative of Great Diversity and Distinction Owned by Its Photographer Members’. Magnum Photos [online]. Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/ [accessed 29 Sep 2020].

SELF PUBLISH BE HAPPY. 2020. ‘Self Publish, Be Happy’. Self Publish, Be Happy [online]. Available at: http://selfpublishbehappy.com/ [accessed 29 Sep 2020].

SINCLAIR, Iain. 2003. London Orbital : A Walk around the M25. London: Penguin.

VICE. 2020. ‘Photos – VICE’. VICE [online]. Available at: https://www.vice.com/en_ca/topic/photos [accessed 29 Sep 2020].

PHO703: Where to Now?

I am looking forward to finding out about the next module, but in the meantime I have a few little jobs to keep me busy during the holidays …

A Book Dummy

Making a proper printed book dummy for my project is my number one task over the next few weeks. I have covered my progress so far in a previous post.

Black and White

I will continue to look for accomplished photographers who use black and white and with whose approach I ‘click’. Learning how to ‘see’ or visualise a potential image in black and white before pressing the shutter of my camera will take time to master.

My Project

I plan to continue with some photography walks through the holidays. I need to keep up the connection and nurture the threads of my thinking, and to take advantage of a still relatively quiet city especially at night. That may well change (or not) if the two universities here restart full student and academic activities in late September and October.

PHO703: Adams and Curation

The photographer Robert Adams has some very good words about curation and editing. These are important, partly because I am coming up to submitting my portfolio of work for the module and partly because I am embarking on the preparation of a proper book dummy for my project which will require really careful curation.

First:

‘But you surely can unmake a body of good pictures with poor editing. Editing is every bit as hard as making photographs. No two pictures are qualitatively equal. Their proper ordering cannot be determined by rule.

‘And, there is often the difficulty of deciding whether a picture should be included at all. Is it faithful to the subject? Some of the problem is in freeing yourself from the memory of standing there when you took the photograph, amazed and hopeful and trying hard.

‘It’s the same struggle that Flannery O’Connor said a writer faces: “The writer has to judge himself with a stranger’s eye and a stranger’s scrutiny”’ (Wolf 2019).

And second:

‘I think photography is editing, start to finish, editing life, selecting part of it to stand for the whole. The process starts, obviously, with what you choose to include in the finder when you make the exposure. It continues as you study the contact sheets or thumbnails in order to decide which to enlarge. It goes on, sometimes for years, as you try to determine which enlargements are successful. Dorothea Lange, one of my heroes, used to ask herself, sotto voce, “Is it a picture? Is it a picture?” Most photographers are like that, confident one day and unsure the next. And then there is the long search for which pictures may strengthen each other, and in what relationships. That final step usually involves for us laying out all the conceivably appropriate pictures for a book in a line, in a roughly plausible sequence, after which we make a stack of the pictures in that order and go through it to see how they might work as singles or doubles on a spread. Those two steps are then repeated over and over again’ (Chang 2009).

I like the idea that good curation is ‘editing life’ and that the photographer (or artist) must stand back and judge their work ‘with a stranger’s eye and a stranger’s scrutiny’. These are important reminders.

References

ADAMS, Robert and Joshua CHUANG. 2009. ‘ROBERT ADAMS: Summer Nights, Walking INTERVIEW WITH JOSHUA CHUANG’. Aperture (197), 52–9.

WOLF, Sasha. 2019. ‘From Robert Adams to Rinko Kawauchi: How Photographers Work’. Financial Times, 04 Oct [online]. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/4f15e162-e4a5-11e9-9743-db5a370481bc [accessed 02 Aug 2020].

PHO703: Robert Adams and James Nachtwey

Two other points arise from a look at Robert Adams – see my earlier post. The first is his attention to framing and composition.

‘The notable thing, it seems to me, about great pictures is that everything fits. There is nothing extraneous. There is nothing too much, too little, and everything within that frame relates. Nothing is isolated. … But the thing the artist is trying to give you is a reminder of those rare times when you did see the world so that everything seemed to fit – so that things had consequence. The majority evidence is for chaos, let’s face it. … But the value of art is that it helps us recall transforming times that are of such a quality that they last’ (ART21 2020).

Involved in this is careful attention to detail, but for a purpose and not simply because something happens to catch the photographer’s eye in a meretricious way: ‘By looking closely at specifics in life, you discover a wider view. And although we can’t speak with much assurance about how this is conveyed, it does seem to me that among the most important ways it is conveyed by artists is through attention to form’ (ART21 2020).

Careful framing is a constant battle in my experience and is often more difficult at night when one often cannot really see everything in the viewfinder.

The second point is that problematic word, beauty. Adams is very open about being in pursuit of it: ‘Beauty is the confirmation of meaning in life. It is the thing that seems invulnerable, in some cases, to our touch. And who would want to do without beauty? There’s something perverse about ruling out beauty’ (ART21 2020).

However, I think it is more productive for me to consider this not in terms only of ‘beauty’, whatever that may be, but in terms of the tension between beauty and tragedy, the lamb and the lion. Many if not all artists must struggle with this. It has been very well expressed by the documentary photographer James Nachtwey: ‘I don’t think that in my pictures the beauty overcomes the tragedy. It sometimes envelopes it and makes it more poignant. It makes it more accessible. The paradox of the co-existence of beauty and tragedy has been a theme in art and literature throughout the ages. Photography is no exception’ (Caponigro 2000).

How does this relate to my practice? First, it has made me appreciate that I have not been paying enough attention to detail and particularly not to the extent that a carefully selected detail can reveal much more about an overall story than one may think.

Second, that the interplay between beauty and tragedy, the lamb and the lion, creates tension and is particularly relevant when photographing at night. One can choose almost any pair of opposites and the tension between them will be there. Good images require tension. So in my walks along the Thames this summer, the tranquil and the uncanny and sometimes the quite menacing have all arisen. And they have arisen, too, in the contrast between quiet suburban streets or peaceful old houses and brash and anonymous new shopping centres or run-down, inner city deprivation. So the tension between these elements is also something I need to pay more attention to, both in individual images and in the sequencing of an overall portfolio.

Finally, Adams and Nachtwey agree at one point: much of photography is all about collaboration, and to the extent that we carry all that has gone before us we are also all re-photographers.

Adams: ‘Your own photography is never enough. Every photographer who has lasted has depended on other people’s pictures too – photographs that may be public or private, serious or funny, but that carry with them a reminder of community’ (Adams and Byrne 1994).

Nachtwey: ‘I use what I know about the formal elements of photography at the service of the people I’m photographing – not the other way around. I’m not trying to make statements about photography. I’m trying to use photography to make statements about what’s happening in the world’ (Caponigro 2000).

So it’s not all about me, and it never was. Thank heavens. What a release.

References

ADAMS, Robert and Wendy BYRNE. 1994. Why People Photograph : Selected Essays and Reviews. 1st edn. New York: Aperture, 13.

ART21. 2020. ‘Photography, Life, and Beauty: Robert Adams’. Art21 [online]. Available at: https://art21.org/read/robert-adams-photography-life-and-beauty/ [accessed 31 Jul 2020].

CAPONIGRO, John Paul. 2000. ‘An Interview with James Nachtwey’. John Paul Caponigro [online]. Available at: https://www.johnpaulcaponigro.com/photographers/conversations/james-nachtwey/ [accessed 22 Jul 2020].